asser Arafat and Bill Clinton stood in the Map Room of the White House on September 13, 1993, making awkward conversation. Two days earlier, Clinton had Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization removed from the State Department’s list of terrorist groups. The Map Room meeting came after the Palestinian leader’s famous handshake outside the White House with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, which inaugurated the “Oslo era.” The accords created the Palestinian Authority to serve as a sort of caretaker government tasked with making peace with Israel and building the institutions of a state, led by Arafat. Just like that, one of the most consequential terrorists of his generation became the equivalent of a head of state—before the state even existed.
The whirlwind changes left Clinton unprepared for the meeting. Perhaps that accounts for the momentous mistake he made that day. “Rabin can’t make further concessions until he can prove to his people that the agreement he just made with you can work,” he told Arafat. “So the more quickly we can move on your track, the more quickly we’ll be able to move on the Syrian track.” Clinton thus tipped his hand: The U.S. saw an Israeli–Syrian peace deal as the real goal, and the president needed Arafat to make it happen. “Now that Arafat had used that deal to open up a relationship with Washington, he did not want to let Clinton shift his attention back to Syria,” reports Clinton foreign-policy hand Martin Indyk in his memoir. “And the more he managed to involve us in the details of his agreement with the Israelis, the less we would be able to do that. In his good-hearted innocence, Clinton had revealed his preferences. Arafat would not forget them.”
Indeed he would not. No foreign official would be invited to the Clinton White House more than Arafat. The Israeli–Palestinian peace process would not be a mere sideshow to the wider Arab–Israeli conflict. It would be a tapeworm inside U.S. foreign policy, diverting and consuming resources. Arafat had made the Palestinian Authority the center of the world.
Twenty-five years of violence, corruption, and incompetence later, the PA lies in ruins, with the Palestinian national project right behind it. Arafat controlled the PLO for a half-century before assuming control of the new PA. Thus his death in 2004 was the first moment of serious potential change in the character of Palestinian institutions. Mahmoud Abbas, far less enamored of violence than the blood-soaked Arafat, was his successor. Rather than reform Palestinian institutions, Abbas has presided over their terminal decline. As Abbas’s own health fades and as the world again turns its attention to Gaza, the part of the Palestinian territories not controlled by him, it’s worth wondering if there is a future at all for the Palestinian Authority.
The PLO was created at an Arab League summit in Cairo in 1964 to serve as an umbrella group for Palestinian organizations seeking Israel’s destruction. It was paralyzed by intra-Arab rivalries until various factions figured out how to wag the dog and draw the Arab states into war with Israel. “Palestinian guerrilla action was insufficient to achieve liberation, and so it needed to overturn reactionary Arab governments and assist Arab unity in order to provide the power necessary to attain the ultimate objective of liberation,” writes Palestinian intellectual and historian Yezid Sayigh, describing how some within the PLO saw it. Arafat’s Fatah faction, which delayed in joining the PLO but influenced it from the outside, was more explicit in a 1965 memorandum: Arab national armies would “intervene to decide the conflict, and to bring it to an end after the revolutionary masses had prepared the way for them.”
Palestinian provocations played a part in helping to fan the flames that exploded into the Six-Day War in June 1967. Yet rather than destroy Israel, the Arab armies lost territory to the Jewish state, including the West Bank of the Jordan River. The following year, Fatah—which had by now joined the PLO—provoked a costly battle with Israeli forces in the West Bank town of Karama. Fatah lost nearly 100 fighters, but Arafat’s mad gamble paid off: The Palestinians survived a face-off with the Israeli military and demonstrated their independence from Jordan. Arafat used this failure-as-success to complete Fatah’s takeover of the PLO in 1969 and become the undisputed public face of the Palestinian guerrillas. Documents captured by Israeli forces in southern Lebanon in 1982 showed extensive training and sponsorship of Palestinian guerrillas across the Communist bloc—the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, Hungary, Soviet-aligned Pakistan—in addition to PLO support from Arab states. After its expulsion from Lebanon in the wake of the Israeli incursion, the PLO went into exile in Tunisia.
The first intifada broke out in 1987, and even as it publicized Palestinian resistance, it gave the West a chance to consign Arafat and the PLO to irrelevance. Foreign Minister Moshe Arens proposed allowing the major Palestinian cities in the West Bank and Gaza to hold mayoral elections, after which Israel would recognize the winners as official Palestinian interlocutors. Rabin, then the defense minister, opposed the Arens plan, fearing it would undermine Israel Defense Forces’ control of the West Bank. A compromise plan was for the Palestinians in the territories to hold elections for negotiators, not officeholders. In his memoir, Arens explains that the idea “was meant to begin a process of negotiations with the Palestinians while bypassing the Palestine Liberation Organization.”
Before Arens or Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir could present the plan to the George H.W. Bush administration, Bush and Secretary of State James Baker preempted the Israelis by leaking to reporters their preference for the PLO and their belief that talks with Arafat should broach the possibility of establishing a Palestinian state. Shamir’s right-of-center Likud party revolted, and the government eventually collapsed. Bush had succeeded not only in throwing Israeli politics into chaos in the midst of the intifada, but also in effectively legitimizing Arafat as the rightful representative of Palestinian nationalism. This put the PLO and Israel on the glide path to that September 1993 breakthrough and the creation of the Palestinian Authority.
All this history taught Arafat one unmistakable lesson: Violence works. And so, after the signing of the Declaration of Principles in 1993, violence continued. Some of it was ordered by Arafat; some tacitly encouraged by him; some his security services merely allowed to happen. More than 250 people were killed by Palestinian terrorists in the five years after the signing ceremony. Arafat’s political rivals in Hamas pioneered the use of suicide bombings as a regular feature of terrorism. This served Arafat well: He could crack down on Hamas if and when he needed to but could also keep his fingerprints off some of the most heinous violence against Israeli civilians.
A perfect example of this double game occurred in February 1996. The Norwegian diplomat and UN envoy Terje Rod-Larsen met regularly with Arafat at the Palestinian leader’s Gaza home throughout the Oslo period. On February 24, 1996—a Saturday—Arafat asked his guest his plans for the next day. Rod-Larsen said he was thinking about spending the day in Jerusalem. According to the journalist Michael Kelly, Arafat cryptically said: “Why don’t you stay away from Jerusalem on Sunday.” The next day, Hamas blew up a bus in Jerusalem and another in Ashkelon, killing 26. “Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, who thought he had persuaded Palestinian radicals to refrain from attacks on Israelis, condemned the bombings, saying they threatened the peace process,” reported CNN that day.
Violence wasn’t the only way Arafat hindered the cause of Palestinian statehood. Corruption tore through nascent Palestinian institutions. The numbers are staggering. After Arafat’s death, David Samuels surveyed the damage for the Atlantic:
The International Monetary Fund has conservatively estimated that from 1995 to 2000 Arafat diverted $900 million from Palestinian Authority coffers, an amount that did not include the money that he and his family siphoned off through such secondary means as no-bid contracts, kickbacks, and rake-offs…. In 1996 alone, $326 million, or 43 percent of the state budget, had been embezzled, and…another $94 million, or 12.5 percent of the budget, went to the president’s office…. A total of $73 million, or 9.5 percent of the budget, [was] spent on the needs of the population of the West Bank and Gaza.… Arafat hid his personal stash, estimated at $1 billion to $3 billion, in more than 200 separate bank accounts around the world, the majority of which have been uncovered since his death.
Why didn’t the creation of the PA result in Arafat’s transition from guerrilla leader to civilian state-builder? Three problems kept cropping up. The first was that his lack of accountability was enabled by both Israel and the United States, out of the naive belief that it didn’t matter how Arafat built his state and abided by agreements just so long as he did so. Arafat exploited this—he never built his state, in part because nobody was willing to make him.
The second problem was that the PA only added a layer of opacity to Arafat’s power structure. As the analyst Jonathan Schanzer notes in State of Failure: “Was he the chairman of the PLO, the president of the PA, or the leader of Fatah? These varying roles made it difficult to firmly establish his accountability.”
The third problem was more fundamental: Arafat shaped the PLO, and thus the Palestinian national movement, for a quarter-century before the PA was established. The only thing that changed was that nothing changed. Arafat’s predilection for violence, secrecy, and authoritarianism would be deeply corrosive to the institutions of an existing state; to a nonstate tasked with creating those institutions, they were fatal.
Not until Arafat died did the full extent of the PA’s failure become clear to all. Arafat’s absence was supposed to be cause for hope; instead, it revealed the bankruptcy of the PA’s model. Mahmoud Abbas inherited not a state but an illusion.
There is no doubt that Abbas was an improvement over Arafat. As Arafat’s deputy, he tried in vain to convince his boss to halt the second intifada (2000–2003), a bloody campaign of violence instigated by Arafat after he turned down Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s offer of a Palestinian state at Camp David in 2000. The intifada sapped Israelis’ faith in the PA as a negotiating partner and delivered Likud’s Ariel Sharon—the godfather of Israel’s settlement movement and a man who, as defense minister, had been instrumental in driving the PLO out of Lebanon two decades earlier—to the prime minister’s office.
Abbas’s ascension left policymakers in Jerusalem and Washington playing Weekend at Bernie’s with the corpse of the Palestinian Authority, waving its arms and propping it up in public. Both wanted to show the Palestinians they could get more with honey than with vinegar. But by 2004, it didn’t really matter. With President George W. Bush’s backing, Sharon went forward with plans to pull Israel completely out of Gaza and parts of the West Bank. The “Disengagement” of 2005 was a political earthquake: Israel’s great champion of the settlers uprooted thousands with no concessions from the Palestinians. More important, perhaps, was the fact that it was unilateral. How much did the PA even matter anymore?
Abbas’s legitimacy was another nagging problem. Though he won a presidential election in 2005, the PA was haunted by the ghosts of Arafat’s corruption. In 2006, Abbas called for legislative elections. Confident of victory, he permitted Hamas to participate in the elections, and the U.S. didn’t object. Had his Fatah party won, its legitimacy would have been undeniable. But in a shock, Hamas won. Fatah was hobbled not only by the perception of Arafat’s venality but also by the consequences of his one-man rule. In their biography of Abbas, Grant Rumley and Amir Tibon write: “Palestinian legislative elections are essentially a local election, in which every ‘district’ chooses its own members of parliament from the different political lists. While Hamas’s candidates ran under one banner, Fatah showed disastrous disunity by having splinter lists in multiple camps, towns, and villages.” Civil war engulfed the Palestinian territories. Hamas took control of Gaza and was booted from the government in the West Bank. Abbas is now in the 14th year of his four-year term.
His legitimacy in tatters, Abbas went about consolidating power and cracking down on dissent. But it wasn’t just the democratic deficit that made Abbas’s reign resemble his predecessor’s. The courts, legislative institutions, education, civil society—Palestinian state-building simply wasn’t happening. In 2010, the Carnegie Endowment’s Nathan Brown studied Palestinian government and society under Abbas’s Western-educated prime minister, Salam Fayyad, and he came to a dispiriting conclusion: “There was far more building of institutions under Yasser Arafat than there has been under Fayyad. It is true that many institutions were built in spite of Arafat and that Fayyad’s behavior suggests a greater respect for rules and institutions. But that is consolation only for those who mistake personalities for politics.”
Yet in one way Abbas is arguably more dangerous even than his predecessor. Arafat was notoriously defensive about possible successors because he had created an entire system centered on his role as the Indispensable Man. Nonetheless, PLO bylaws made Abbas the rightful successor, and he remained the consensus choice.
But to say Abbas has failed to claw back any control over Gaza would be an understatement. With a bevy of foreign benefactors—among them Turkey, Iran, and Qatar—no pretense of democracy, and no easy way in or out, the strip has become a Philadelphia-sized Islamist police state. Every few years, Hamas instigates a war with Israel to remind the world that no degree of physical isolation can make it irrelevant. On March 30, the group organized the first so-called “March of Return,” a day of protest and mischief at the border with Israel in which 20 Palestinians were killed in clashes with Israeli troops. A top Hamas official said the marches will continue until they succeed in overrunning the border and driving the Jews out of the land. For this, the protests were rewarded with absurd media devotionals; the New York Times hyped a Palestinian analyst’s comparison of the border rushes to the civil-rights protesters trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. Hamas displays the organizational control Abbas can only dream of, and the ability to have its propaganda amplified by the Times, CNN, and other major media across the globe. Abbas is reduced to gritting his teeth, and lately seems ready to just give up, telling Egyptian interlocutors in early April that unless Hamas turns over “everything, all institutions and ministries, including security and weapons,” the Palestinian Authority “will not be responsible for what happens there.”
The 82-year-old Abbas is in deteriorating health—yet he has dragged his feet on succession. He now indicates he’ll designate deputy chairman Mahmoud al-Aloul his next in line. But “anyone who thinks Aloul’s appointment will find smooth sailing within Fatah is wrong,” warns Israeli journalist Shlomi Eldar in Al-Monitor. The largest challenge could come from Mohammed Dahlan, Fatah’s former Gaza security chief, whom Abbas sent into exile in 2011 and who has been cultivating Sunni allies abroad. Jibril Rajoub is the party’s secretary general and believes he’s the rightful heir. Hamas could leap into the vacuum to try to take the West Bank by force, or it could play havoc by supporting someone like Dahlan. If the succession battle becomes a proxy fight among Arab states, it could get bloody fast. The PA as an institution survived Arafat’s death. It may not survive Abbas’s.
There is, of course, one remaining way for Abbas to distinguish himself from Arafat and ensure that he leaves something tangible behind: He could take yes for an answer and actually seek a negotiated settlement. Sadly, his track record here isn’t any better. In 2007, he walked away from a generous Israeli offer by Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert. The 2008 U.S. election briefly appeared to vindicate him—Barack Obama was elected president and proceeded to browbeat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into giving away the store. But Abbas made a fool of Obama, too. At first, he sat back and played for time. Then, seeing how difficult Obama was making life for Netanyahu, he thought he could wait for Netanyahu’s government to crumble. When Obama left office in 2017, Netanyahu was still prime minister. The one time negotiations got anywhere, in 2014, Abbas blew them up by abruptly agreeing to bring Hamas into the government, a move that cannot be countenanced by the U.S. or Israel as long as Hamas remains committed to terrorism and refuses to abide by existing agreements.
Obama did two other things that backfired on the Palestinian Authority. One was the Iran nuclear deal, which gave tacit American support to Tehran’s expansionism in the Middle East, scaring Sunni regional powers like Saudi Arabia and Egypt into strategic alignment with Israel. The other was more subtle but just as consequential: He helped orchestrate the passage of a UN Security Council resolution that deemed East Jerusalem, home to Judaism’s holy sites, occupied Palestinian territory.
The UN resolution at first seemed to be a clear gift to Abbas. But in reality, it was a ham-handed attempt to tie the hands of President-elect Donald Trump, who would be taking office just a month later. Trump wouldn’t have it. In the first year of his presidency, he publicly declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel and announced that his administration would move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. (While a new embassy compound is being built, the White House plans to officially designate the existing consulate in Jerusalem as the embassy in time for Israel’s 70th anniversary celebrations on May 14.)
The Jerusalem moves have been an unmitigated humiliation for the PA. They undid the damage to the U.S.–Israel relationship inflicted by Obama. Worse for the PA, Trump called the Palestinian bluff. Contrary to the fears of Western observers, and the ill-disguised morbid hopes of some in the media, the region did not go up in flames. The “terrorist’s veto” did. And the coordination that such a move required between the United States and its Arab allies made crystal clear just how isolated the Palestinian Authority has become—how vulnerable it is to the politics of the Arab world, and how impervious to Palestinian politics the Arab world has become.
It took four decades, but the dog is once again wagging the tail.